A fallen soldier: A widow’s grief

A fallen soldier: A widow’s grief

by Hilary Valdez
Stripes Guam

When my brother died, my mother never recovered. Her grief never subsided. She was perpetually angry. Her despair and mood swings shifted through various states of depression, interspersed with crying spells. My father was quiet and supportive. I didn’t know what to do or feel.

Later, I joined the Marine Corps, and during Vietnam, as a bugler, I played Taps at countless funerals, witnessing the sorrow of family members. After one burial, an inconsolable father grabbed my shoulders, and shaking me shouted, “Why is my son dead? Why are you alive?” Then collapsed in my arms, sobbing.

After post-graduate school, I served with Marines from the 2d Battalion, 7th Marines and 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, at the 29 Palms Combat Center. That Christmas, in 2005, 32 Marines were killed during combat operations of Operation Enduring Freedom, followed by two suicides. As a trauma counselor, I was tasked with providing defusings, which are psychological decompression sessions, for widows, family members and Marine survivors. After this duty assignment, I spent two years dealing with my own post-traumatic stress, compassion-fatigue, bewilderment, nightmares, anger, and remorse. I had to re-wire my head, re-calibrate my psychological senses, re-boot my humanity, and outlook on life.

My next role was with the Army as a Survivor Outreach Manager, while training Casualty Assistance Officers dealing with active duty deaths. A military death is filled with complications. Death does not bring out the best in anyone, it is painful to witness the deep sorrow of the families left behind.

Military widows come in all ages, races and nationalities. Most of the husbands or wives had died suddenly and violently, in a foreign country, many were young. For a widow, the loss is life-changing. Their loved one is never coming home. The widower loses more than that person: they also face losing a part of themselves. And, children only complicate widowhood further.

There is no quick or pain-free way through grief. How and why a servicemember dies has a great impact on grief. The ordeal of military widowhood is just beginning. A nightmare has invaded the person’s life. There is a loss of purpose and a heightened sense of fragility emerges. The widows are forced to face their own mortality as the death has erased security from their lives. 
Death is a critical time. Depression, anger, fear, emptiness, guilt, are common emotional reactions to sudden death. Grief affects every part of you, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Pain and sorrow are the price of a love lost to death. Your emotions follow you and there is no geographical cure. Protecting America is a dangerous profession.

A Casualty Assistance Officer (CACO) is assigned to a family member at the time of death. The Primary Next of Kin (PNOK) may be a spouse, parents, siblings or other family members including children, remarried surviving spouses (does not include a divorced remarried spouse). Being designated as PNOK does not, in and of itself, designate a survivor as a beneficiary for benefits. For support, clarification, benefits and on-going help contact: Department of Veterans Affairs, www.wa.gov; Social Security Administration, www.ssa.gov; Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS); Thrift Savings Plan, www.tsp.gov; Tricare – Military Health Plan, www.tricare.mil; Gold Star Wives, http://www.goldstarwives.org; Military One Source, http://www.militaryonesource.com; Society of Military Widows, http://www,militarywidows.org; Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Inc. (TAPS) http://www.taps.org; United Warrior Survivor Foundation (UWSF) http://www.FrogFriends.com.

Death is complicated. Prepare for paperwork at a time of severe emotional grief. There are numerous resources for the widow or widower, too many to provide in this article. A more complete list of resources is available at: Military Widow: A Survival Guide/Steen & Asaro.

Hilary Valdez is a retiree living in Japan. He is an experienced Mental Health professional and Resiliency Trainer. Valdez is a former Marine and has worked with the military most of his career and most recently worked at Camp Zama as a Master Resiliency Trainer. Valdez now has a private practice and publishes books on social and psychological issues. His books are available on Amazon and for Kindle. Learn more about Valdez and contact him at www.hilaryvaldez.com.

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